Straight to Hollywood? Cathleen Schine’s “The Grammarians”

Two of Cathleen Schine’s slight comic novels have been filmed (The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece.).   Her frothy new novel, The Grammarians, also seems destined for Hollywood.  As light as a helium balloon, it flies up, up, and away before falling to the earth, sans gas.  The mood is reminiscent of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, only with identical twin grammarians instead of a disillusioned architect.

Twins in novels and films are freaky, and the twins  in The Grammarians are no exception.  Daphne and Laurel, named after  Daphne, the daughter of a river god, and the laurel tree she turns into, speak their own baby language.  Later, they delight in reading the dictionary. Their obsession with words frightens their uncle Don, a psychiatrist whom they tease.  He keeps expecting (or hoping for) a rift between these cute wordy geniuses. When  the quarrel finally happens, it is a desperate battle to the death over grammar. True, I’ve seen fiercer arguments, but grammar angst dominates the psyches of upper-class New Yorkers.

Don’t we all secretly wish we were Patty and Cathy, identical cousins in The Patty Duke Show? After graduation from Pomona, Schine’s twins live happily in a slum apartment in New York:  Daphne is a receptionist for an alternative paper, Laurel an intimidated kindergarten teacher at a private school.  After they pull a  “switcheroo” for a day and do each other’s jobs, they fix each other’s errors.  I expected them to trade jobs permanently.  

As time goes by, the two separate, as Uncle Don once predicted. Daphne, the sarcastic sister, becomes a grammar columnist (think The Comma Queen at The New Yorker, or the late William Safire at The New York Times), while  Laurel, the “nice” twin, stays  home with her baby.  But the good twin turns into the evil twin:  desperately jealous of Daphne’s writing,  she adopts a contrarian “descriptive” theory of grammar (spoken language is correct and literary rules are needless ) and writes poems and stories based on ungrammatical letters written during World War I.  Daphne is furious because she thinks Laurel has stolen her identity.  Daphne, however, remains the most famous of the two.

 But Schine’s intellectual twins are caricatures, and they are not quite as smart as Schine thinks they are. They remember their high school Latin teacher’s reading “to them from Plutarch—the story of Romulus and Remus—in Latin.” That would be difficult, if not impossible, since  Plutarch wrote in Greek:  Schine was thinking of Livy.   She also informs us that the girls laughed  over the names Romulus and Remus:  suckled by wolves,  they were named for the Latin word, ruma, “teat”(actually,  the standard form is rumis; the Latin word ruma usually means “throat, or gullet”).  Actually, Livy writes of  Rumana, the goddess of nursing mothers, because Romulus is born under ficus Rumanalis, the fig tree of Rumana.  He does not use the word ruma, or the preferred form, rumis.  

The Grammarians is a fluffy beach book, and should do well in the women’s fiction market, because there is no style to interfere with story.   Schine writes like a copy-editor, with short sentences, simple vocabulary, and few adjectives and adverbs.

This is not to say you won’t enjoy it. Everybody likes to be entertained.  I look forward to seeing the responses of my grammarian friends.

Reading Latin in an Industrial City & the Kissing Poem of Catullus

Many years ago, I lived and read Latin poetry in an industrial city on the shores of one of the lesser Great Lakes.  You will not have heard of this provincial city because it is tucked away in flyover country.  You would never visit because it is intensely ugly, completely flat, and usually overcast.  As we approached the outskirts in our rented Ryder truck, I was startled by the flames rising from the stacks of steel plants and factories.  It was as though they proclaimed, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

“Is this the Inferno?”  I asked my husband.

We all have to live somewhere.  We follow our spouses, we go where there are jobs, we adapt to inclement weather and pollution.  In summer there were compensations:  you could picnic on the scrubby beach and watch the the waves; in winter you were awed by the frozen waves. In summer the light was wan, while the dark winters lasted five or six months.  When it snowed in May, we took day trips to nearby city where spring began at the normal time.  

Weather is surprisingly important.  People who grew up in that city didn’t mind the sunless days. It was more difficult for those of us from sunnier places.  There were three solutions to the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder, as I saw it: antidepressants, alcohol, or a hobby.

I opted for the hobby:  I immersed myself in Latin, the language and literature I taught for years and read for decades.  I lounged with my Catullus, Ovid, and Apuleius, surrounded by pillows, dictionaries, and endless cups of tea.  For a while, I forgot the gray skies.

Reading dead languages is a dying art.  Classical literature spans several centuries, and there is no easy “Hemingway-esque” starting point:  you begin with the complicated and sophisticated, in  a world without  Dr. Seuss or Little Women.  It’s as though you learned the basics of English and jumped into Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Macaulay, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf.   Vocabulary, dialect, style genre:  all completely different with each author.

Latin is no longer spoken, except at wacky conventions organized by the equivalent of WorldCon’s SF fans, but the literature is fun and various and more than 60% of English words are derived from Latin.  If you love dictionaries, this is the language for you.

A good Roman poet to start with is the slangy Catullus, whose charming love poems are universal.   Here is my translation of his famous kissing poem, (No. 5).   He addresses Lesbia, his girlfriend, who is sometimes thought to be the Roman adulteress, Clodia Metelli.  (Some of us think Lesbia is a fictional character.)

Here’s the poem:

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,

Let us count the rumors of old men meaningless.

Suns can rise and set;

For us, when the brief light sets,

one perpetual night must be slept.

Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,

Then another thousand, then a second hundred,

Then straight on to another thousand, then a hundred,

And when we have made thousands of kisses,

we will mix them up, so that we don’t  know the count,

and so no enemy can cast the evil eye,

because he knows the number of our kisses.

Now I live in a sunny city where I continue to read my Latin. But I admit, there are times when I’d love to see the Great Lakes again.

Cake for Peter Fonda: “Easy Rider” in 2019

Easy Rider, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.

We made two cakes this weekend. 

“Get a white or yellow cake mix.  A yellow cake tastes just like a white cake,” I said.

Cake mixes are better than homemade cake, at least in my kitchen. My cakes are giant flat biscuits.  It would be different if I had a Mixmaster, I always think.  The Mixmaster would make the batter fluffy.

 We decided to make a cake in honor of Peter Fonda, who died last week.  We would offer crumbs to the gods.

But there was a cake problem.  My husband did buy a yellow cake, in a sense.  It was lemon cake.  Let me say that lemon cake mixes are a regrettable invention. 

He gallantly went back  for a white cake mix. 

Peter Fonda

And then we sat in the living room and watched Easy Rider (1969), an independent film written by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern.  The heroes, Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), are drug dealers on an American road trip.  Wyatt is the cool, taciturn guy and Billy is the wild man.  An American flag is ironically painted on Wyatt’s helmet, but the small-town Americans do not appreciate this.

Not much happens.  Wyatt gets a flat tire.   They pick up a hitchhiking hippie philosopher and visit his commune.  There is a mime troupe at the commune and at least one goat (or was it a llama?)  in the house.  Everybody is stoned:  how else could they stand it?

The film has a slightly embarrassing ‘60s vibe, but if you watch it to the end it is poignant.  Wyatt and Billy are traveling on their motorcycles to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  Things become intense in the South.  No small-town restaurants will serve them and no motel will rent them a room because of their long hair.  (I had forgotten all about that aspect of the ’60s.)

The tempo of the film picks up when they meet George (Jack Nicholson), a witty lawyer with a drinking problem. He decides to go to New Orleans with them, hilariously wearing a gold football helmet for a motorcycle helmet. 

Wyatt introduces George to marijuana.

But “Do you have to be high every minute?”  I prudishly asked the actors during several scenes.

When they finally get to New Orleans, I was relieved to see the actress Karen Black.  I knew, however, that any woman in the film would be there only for sexual reasons.  And, yes, she plays a whore.

The LSD scene is graphic.  Karen Black has a very bad trip.  

“That drug has ruined more people’s lives,” my husband said.

Altered states are not good for everyone.

The ending of this movie is shattering.  I had forgotten how divided America was back then. 

The Peter Fonda movie I really love is Ulee’s Gold,  but it wasn’t available from Netflix.

Russian Literature and the Survival of the Human Spirit: “Anna Karenina” to “Klotsvog”

Once upon a time, I read a lot of 19th-century Russian literature. I was enraptured by the Russian greats:  Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Chekhov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Dostoevsky.  Always a keen reader, I was awed by an exceptional professor who taught a 19th-century Russian Literature in Translation class. I considered taking Russian, but I was studying three languages, two of them seriously, and I knew I had maxed out my limits.

And so I became a compulsive rereader of Anna Karenina. Dolly, Kitty, and Anna suffered terribly in love—and Anna did not survive it.  I knew all about the morass of love.  Well, I was 20:  I knew everything!

“Be sure to read the Maude translation,” a fellow Russian lit geek told me.

“I’ve got it.” I had, in fact, read David Magarshack’s translation in high school, but I loved my Norton edition with the Maude.

Education is a transformative experience. I still marvel over the fact that I, a penniless young woman whose working-class father once beat her up for going on a 25-mile Hike for Hunger, scrabbled my way through college. Years later, when he called to express surprise that I had graduated with honors (his wife had seen it in the paper), he ended the conversation with an insult I can hardly bear to remember.

The spirit of human survival is often a theme is Russian literature.  I rarely venture into Soviet fiction, but I recently read and loved Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden.  I admired the measured, moderate tone of the Jewish narrator, Maya Klotsvog, who at first seems like an ideal friend:   indeed, everyone knows a Maya. But she exaggerates her achievements,  claiming she is a retired mathematics teacher, though she taught only a few classes before dropping out to raise her children.

Perhaps it is the denial that keeps her going. She has a degree and certainly has the ability to teach.  She says,

I was born in 1930 and—like my whole generation—saw too much, things that weren’t pretty.

Field of work: mathematics teacher. Retired, of course. But I don’t consider myself a former teacher. Like a lot of other professions, a teacher’s profession doesn’t exist in the past tense. Acknowledging that sustains me tremendously.

With much denial of the impact of anti-Semitism, the beautiful Maya, who attracts men and has multiple affairs and marriages,  claims she had a happy childhood but reveals that her father died during the Battle of Dnieper.  One of her greatest regrets:  in the haste of evacuation during the German invasion, Maya and her mother left behind dresses made of the special fabric her father brought home after the Polish campaign. She hopes that their Jewish friends who refused to evacuate wore the dresses, but she knows that most were killed. She insists the women in her family were happy during the evacuation:  they spent “the period of the Great Patriotic War in evacuation, in the vicinity of Atbasar Station in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.”

It is clear that Maya, who thinks herself so logical, needs desperately to feel.  Everything is not fine, though she claims it is.  Sex is her addiction.  Unlike Anna Karenina, she can remarry without becoming a pariah.  Maya is always in love with someone new, and always deceives herself that the latest lover is her soulmate.  

Her first husband, Fima, who lost his family in the holocaust, marries her even though he knows she is pregnant by a married professor. He is willing to raise the child.  Her second husband adopts her son, who certainly prefers him to critical Maya, and soon forgets Fima.  When Maya moves to Moscow to marry her latest lover she arranges for her son to live most of the time with her mother.  And yet she can’t stop meddling in his life, even from afar. 

As for the daughter of her third marriage, a fat little girl with artistic talent who shrilly denies being Jewish—she is called “a fat Jew” at school—tries the patience of Maya, who blames the girl for her psychological problems.  Maya embarks on another affair, her typical response to stress. 

 Khemlin slowly reveals Maya’s psychological secrets in brilliant, crystalline prose.  And somehow we are never impatient with Maya–we pity her instead.

Power Outage!

One horrifying result of today’s storm.

Power outages are inconvenient, even scary. My husband woke me up early to say there’d been a bad storm and we had a power outage.  

The alarm clock…” I said in my sleep. Sleep-talking is one of my gifts.  The alarm clock is battery-operated, hence unaffected, but we apparently conversed about it. 

I lay there thinking about power outages:  trying to read in inadequate light, standing in line for coffee (we have an electric stove), living without fans,  air conditioning, wifi, TV, or charger for tablets and computers.  

The house was too quiet.  The electric fans were not spinning.  I had that sticky feeling, as if we’d been camping out.  I called the power company and learned that twenty-thousand people were without power.

Power outages are slow, unless you have caffeine and reading lights.  One summer we endured three days without power. At night we ended up at IHOP or Denny’s.  It was that, or go to sleep at 9.

At 8 a.m., my priority was caffeine. I dumped water over teabags in a pitcher and made sun tea.  I sat in the Adirondack chair watching the water turn into tea while I read John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, a dystopian novel that is all too prescient of many aspects of our computer-dependent, Big Brother-monitored society. 

It was just so hot, though…. I finally went indoors and tried reading by battery-operated lantern.  But there wasn’t enough light.  

This afternoon I was going out the door in search of air-conditioning when the lights came on.  Hurrah!  I happily turned on the fans, read my book, drank coffee, and allowed the prima elder-cat to watch an episode of Modern Family.  

We only endured eight and a half hours without power.  Why is it so uncomfortable?  If anybody can recommend a non-electric coffee-making device that doesn’t involve a propane camping stove, I will be forever grateful.

Hiroshima and Madness in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

  • I was not a science fiction geek in the late 1960s.  None of us long-haired wire-rim-bespectacled compulsive readers were. Then a friend’s older brother introduced us not only to Procul Harum but to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  After a recent rereading of Cat’s Cradle, I had to wonder: is it science fiction at all? And was this friend’s brother, whom I barely remember, a member of our karass?   But you only know what a karass is if you’ve read Cat’s Cradle.

In Vonnegut’s comical post-modern novel,  the narrator, John, aka Jonah, is worried, with good reason, about the end of the world. He is comforted by the (fictitious) religion of  Bokanism, which teaches that human beings are divided into teams (the karass) to do God’s will. 

“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.”

The karass is a mysterious force.  When John was a younger man–“two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago”–he planned to write a book called The End of the World.   He wanted to know what prominent Americans were doing on the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The three adult children of the late Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atom bomb, remember little about that day but paint a frightening portrait of their father as a scientific sociopath.  Hoenikker had no conscience nor concern about how science was used:  the day he died he created another lethal substance called Ice-nine (which killed him).  It freezes liquids and everyone who touches it.  Bizarrely, his children divided the chips of Ice-nine in mason jars and thermoses after they found him frozen dead in his wicker chair.  

Vonnegut effortlessly manipulates the many threads (or should I say strings?)  of this philosophical dystopian comedy. The chapters are short, the writing witty, the sentences have a snappy rhythm, and the narrative is broken up with letters, poems, and Bokononist quotes.   On the first page, John says he has converted to Bokanism but is resigned to not knowing all the members of his karass.

Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to….

About my karass, then.

It surely includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called “Fathers” of the first atom bomb.  Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children.

The End of the World turns into a different book after a magazine editor sends John to  a little-known island in the Caribbean, St. Fernando, where Bokanism is practiced.  And, coincidentally, all three of the Hoenikker children are there: Frank, a hobby shop employee on the run from the mob, is now a general and the future president of St. Fernando; Newt, a midget who dropped out of Cornell to have an affair with a Russian spy midget, paints very dark paintings; and Cordelia, an exceptionally tall women who married  a former colleague of her father’s, is thrilled to get out of Indiana.  Unfortunately, they have  ice-9 with them.  

If you wonder if human beings are stupid enough to end the world with atom bombs or other lethal substances, you might as well stop worrying and start living.   Vonnegut believes they will.  

But, fortunately, he has a wry sense of humor.  The survivors, including John, are all Hoosiers (natives of Indiana, as was Vonnegut).    

Henry James’s “The Bostonians”

If you are a fan of Henry James, you probably peruse his elegant sentences in your study or office where husband, cats, dogs, in-laws, friends, and political canvassers are unlikely to interrupt you.  While reading The Bostonians, NEVER open the door to well-meaning Democratic presidential canvassers, because they’ll talk your ear off just as verbosely as James’s political enthusiasts do in The Bostonians

The Bostonians, published in 1886,  is a strange, intricate, often playful narrative about a tussle of love and politics between the sexes, set appropriately after the Civil War.  Though this novel is not his his subtlest, it is very enjoyable.

In this partly satiric novel, an emotional tug-of-war is fought between post-Civil War progressives and conservatives. Naturally, the well-educated New Englanders are the best-organized.  The Bostonian abolitionists have triumphed, and now they are fighting for women’s suffrage.

The Bostonians is also a twisted love story,  in which two suitors contend for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a young woman who is an up-and-coming lecturer for the Women’s Movement.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy, neurotic spinster in Boston, becomes obsessed with Verena, to the point that she pays off Verena’s unsuitable parents so she and Verena can live together undisturbed.  She insists she is training Verena—but her sexual feelings are obvious to the reader.  Whether Verena returns them is unclear—it seems unlikely—but their friendship is not only close but characterized by hysteria and sexual jealousy.   At one point, Olive tries to procure a promise that Verena will never leave her for a man.  Realizing she has gone too far, Olive does has the sense to withdraw this request.

Olive’s rival is her cousin, Basil Ransom,  who lost his estate in Mississippi during the Civil War.  He is an unsuccessful lawyer in New York City and an arch-conservative writer whose right-wing essays have  not been published.  He believes women belong in the home, that only the most intelligent should be educated, and and that masculinity is undermined by the rise of the suffrage movement.  

Some critics read this novel as a satire of the women’s movement, and it is true that Olive is not James’s cup of tea, nor anyone else’s.  On the other hand, he is sympathetic to an aged abolitionist-turned-feminist, Miss Birdseye, who has given everything she has to various causes, and to Dr. Prance, who is so absorbed by her medical studies that she ignores all politics.  In her view, there are few differences between men and women.  

Verena is the character we all love.  She is charming, kind, talented, and very smart.  She does not want to hurt Olive, who has taught her so much; the two are genuinely close friends.  But Olive’s tantrums whenever a man approaches, especially Basil, with whom Verena falls in love, are unmanageable.  Verena is willing to sacrifice everything for Olive, or thinks she is.  Fortunately, Henry James will not be cruel to Verena–but he undercuts the traditional “happy ending.”  We reluctantly realize that neither the hysterical Olive nor the domineering Basil are likely to make Verena  happy.

The unfavorable portrait of  lesbians does seem to be common in 19th- and 20th-century literature.  In D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, two women, Banford and March, struggle to run a farm on their own, but a fox keeps stealing their chickens.  When a soldier (another fox) shows up and begins to work for them,  March, the more “masculine” woman, is threatened.  (I haven’t read this in years, so I’m not quite sure if the women are lesbians or if it’s only latent.)  I can’t think of any other anti-lesbian novels at the moment, but I’m sure I’ve read some.

The Bostonians is beautifully-written, sometimes comical, other times frustrating and horrifying.  I can’t pretend I agree with James’s politics, but then what are they?  He’s not entirely on either political side in The Bostonians.  Whatever he believed, this is a classic.